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Mon Dec 05 18:34:11 SAST 2016

The Big Read: There are no wrong numbers

Darrel Bristow-Bovey | 2016-09-30 08:03:58.0
HI. IT'S ME: The Telephone of the Wind, where people phone their dead relatives and loved ones.
Image by: NHK WORLD TELEVISION

Every year on her sister's birthday, my wife sits down at her dressing table and writes out a letter in long-hand.

It's usually a chatty letter, filled with small talk and incidentals about what's happening in her life, details of holidays, complaints about work, what it's like to be married to me. She has written a letter on this day for the past 30 years, so she has said all the heavy things she needed to say; now it's really just to keep in touch and let her sister know that she's not forgotten.

Then we drive to Hout Bay and walk to the end of the pier and she throws the letter into the sea and we go for a drink and to eat calamari at the hotel. Her sister had no connection with Hout Bay when she was alive, it's just a place with a pier that's not too far away, and you can get good calamari.

I like the ordinariness of the ritual, the lack of self-importance and melodrama. The vulnerable intimacy of it just breaks my heart.

One day about two years ago I was walking home in the dusk from the Sea Point promenade, and as I passed the public phone on Main Road it started ringing. I looked around to see if anyone was ready to answer it. No one. As I dithered and dallied, it stopped ringing. Instantly I felt the weight of my loss. What was wrong with me? Why didn't I answer? How will I ever know who it was? Perhaps I could have helped. Perhaps they could have helped me. The universe had reached out in all its strange, random sense of humour, and I hadn't answered the call.

I've spent much time wondering who might have been on the other end of the line. The wife of a kidnapped husband, calling the phone number that the kidnappers provided, every hour at 10 past the hour, just as they instructed. A broken-hearted guy on a long-haul bus trip, calling his girl at the last number she called from before she said goodbye, knowing that of course she isn't there and isn't ever going to answer. A lonely old man, sleepless in a Singapore high-rise, randomly pressing numbers in the hope of hearing a human voice.

Or maybe it's from somewhere else.

On a recent podcast I discovered the story of the Telephone of the Wind. A man in the seaside town of Otsuchi in north-eastern Japan bought a decommissioned phone booth, a rectangular glass-panelled box, and installed it on his property, at the foot of a sloping lawn open to the street, on a hillside above the ocean, unconnected to any telephone line. Otsuchi was in the path of the tsunami that struck Japan in 2011 with waves 40m high, travelling up to 10km inland. More than 16000 people died, and today many of their relatives travel to the hillside above Otsuchi to use the Telephone of the Wind.

A documentary was aired on the Japanese NHK World TV channel, chronicling the visitors to the booth over the past year. They come from nearby villages or from far away.

One young man has travelled four hours on a bus. He walks slowly up to the booth, then steps inside and lifts the silent receiver and dials the number of a home that no longer exists and says, "Dad? Dad? Are you there?"

Some people use the phone to tell their loved ones the things they should have told them while they were alive, but for me it's even more moving to hear the kids reporting they've made the tennis team, the daughters confessing they have a new crush, the son or wife bravely pretending that there's no need to worry, everyone at home is just fine.

If you can listen to the white-haired old farmer whispering down the line to his wife that he has rebuilt the house and she must come home now, that please it's time for her to come home, and you can manage not to cry like Claire Danes in an onion factory then you are made of sterner stuff than I am.

I like to imagine that all those calls aren't going nowhere, that such pure and concentrated charges of emotion aren't lost but enter the great circuit of life and emerge as electrical discharge at the end of a ringing telephone in some other place, wrong numbers brushing up against someone lucky enough to still be alive.

I wish I'd answered that ringing telephone, even just to say that I'm not who they're looking for but I'm not a wrong number, that really, if you look at it right, we're all here together and there are no wrong numbers.

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